SEC teams that should play for the future in 2015
Working for the front office of the San Diego Chargers during the 2011 season, I witnessed a 7-8 franchise already eliminated from playoff contention, but desperate to win the final game of the season.
A long-time MLB beat writer, then reporting on the NFL team for the San Diego Union-Tribune, held court in the locker room in between interviews with players. The writer couldn’t get over the fact that the team wouldn’t start cornerback Shareece Wright, potentially the team’s future at the position behind an aging Quentin Jammer, to get a better evaluation of the little-used rookie.
MLB teams out of the playoff chase regularly showcase minor-league players in September in an attempt to evaluate for the future.
Everyone knew coach Norv Turner’s job was in jeopardy (Turner and general manager A.J. Smith lasted one more season before getting let go). But what the writer didn’t see behind closed doors was how badly the owner, coaches, players and everyone in the building wanted to win that final game. It bordered on unhealthy obsession.
Rather than bemoaning the fact that the organization had to spend New Year’s Eve in Oakland for a game that wouldn’t “matter,” the Chargers prepared to pounce on their long-time rivals, which they did. That last win got the team to 8-8, helped preserve the narrative that the team was oh-so-close from a winning record and a playoff spot, and may have saved Turner’s job for one more year.
Not so “meaningless,” was it?
Football coaches, owners, athletic directors and players have a different mindset. Maybe it’s the limited schedule. Whatever the case, it’s not easy to play for the future. If there’s a banged-up starting senior quarterback on a 5-6 SEC team, and a redshirt freshman with a much higher ceiling, it’s likely the veteran will play in a desperate attempt to make a bowl game.
There’s so much pressure in the SEC to win immediately, today, no matter what’s in front or behind. There’s no past and no future on Saturdays in the South.
Sometimes a team can play for the future and win as many games as possible. Sometimes the decisions don’t align that way, and a program has designate the more important priority.
Now and then, football coaches would do well to borrow strategy from MLB. There are a few teams who should focus less on immediate results in 2015 and more on positioning themselves for future seasons.
New coach Jim McElwain has done well to manage expectations since he arrived in Gainesville, Fla. Call him the anti-Rex Ryan. Whereas the long-time AFC East head coach would storm into the Gators facilities and declare the team ready to win the SEC — not just the East Division — McElwain has preached caution and patience.
It hasn’t been a subtle message, either, as he’s called the team’s offensive skill players “the Land of Misfit Toys.”
“It’s kinda like HGTV [Home & Garden Television] a little bit,” McElwain told ESPN.com. “This is an unbelievable neighborhood — it’s a great place — and yet we gotta fixer-upper here.”
Florida has enough talent to compete with anyone in the SEC. The defense features one of the best secondaries in college football and perhaps a handful of future NFL players in the front seven. The Gators shouldn’t get blown out often, or perhaps at all, in 2015.
But the team also has enough holes and inexperience to make it very unlikely the team contends for an SEC East title through the end of November.
McElwain needs to hammer away at the 2016 recruiting class while identifying a quarterback of the future between Will Grier and Treon Harris, if that’s possible. In the meantime, he can figure out the team’s weak points and start to address them.
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Kyle Allen. Kyler Murray. Speedy Noil. Christian Kirk. Myles Garrett. Daylon Mack. Armani Watts.
All of those players are among the most talented in College Station, Texas. All of them have something else in common: they’re freshmen or sophomores.
Unless Texas A&M cracks into the upper echelon of the SEC West in 2015, which few outside of the team expect, coach Kevin Sumlin ($5 million per season) will begin to feel major pressure to perform or lose his job.
Trends that fold into clean, negative narratives are costly for football coaches. And since an 11-2 finish in 2012, despite continually adding terrific recruiting classes, the team’s loss total rose to four games in ’13 and five games in ’14.
Sumlin will be coaching this team in 2016, though. The ’16 and ’17 seasons will define his tenure even more than the year Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy.
This is John Chavis’ first season as A&M’s defensive coordinator. By ’16, that unit will be prepared to offer championship-level support to Sumlin’s offense, while either Allen or Murray will be heralded as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country. This 2015 year is about shoring up weaknesses, not about winning titles. Those chances will come soon enough.
Speaking of job security, Derek Mason already may be trying to protect his beyond 2015.
The Commodores plunged from 18 wins in two seasons under coach James Franklin to 3-9 with narrow escapes against UMass and Charleston Southern.
A good goal for Vandy is to always remain in contention for a bowl game, and to reach 6 wins semi-regularly. Last year’s team didn’t play well enough to win some FCS conferences, much less beat multiple SEC programs.
Mason fired all sorts of assistant coaches, including both coordinators. That usually precipitates a lack of a fall guy should things go wrong. The head coach in these situations usually goes next. But rather than obsess about getting to 4-8 or 5-7, the team should instead measure itself by incremental progress.
Can Vandy get closer to Mason’s initial vision for the team on both sides of the ball? Can the coaches identify and stick with a quarterback? Will the front seven play fast and free? Who are the playmakers at receiver?
Answer those questions well and it won’t matter what record Vanderbilt claims at the end of the season. Fail to answer those questions and the same thing is true.